The Art of Compromise

By Bill Dougherty

"Be true to yourself." "Don't violate your personal integrity." "Always live your life according to the highest principles you can envision." We hear these ideas expressed in various ways all the time. They are the values that parents try to instill in their children, and lie at the core of many religious and ethical systems. As basic moral guidelines they have proven true time and again, but what are they based on? They do not point to any book or person or office as the ultimate authority for deciding what is good or right in any particular circumstance. In fact, they imply that we should follow our own inner moral compass, even though it may be imperfect and will not always indicate the best course to follow. Indeed, since we are limited and imperfect beings, we will necessarily make choices that are at best only approximately true. But that is not to say that we are wrong to follow what we truly believe in any given situation. After all, our innate ethical sense draws on the accumulated wisdom of countless lifetimes of making moral choices real-life decisions that have made us who we are and profoundly influence those around us. Time and again we have tried and failed; time and again we have tried and succeeded. Both success and failure are relative to the moment, to the individual understanding and character that we have unfolded so far.

But where do we go for certainty? It would be so convenient to have a completely trustworthy guide that we know to be accurate in all cases. Some people find such guidance in a holy book. They feel that if they do exactly as the book says then they will be following the will of a divine, perfect being. The inspired word of such a being must surely be absolutely true, and anyone who dares to question the divine word would be exceedingly foolish and blasphemous, worthy of censure if not outright condemnation. Yet therein lies the problem. Since all the words we know and use are the product of imperfect human minds, it follows that the literal meaning of words and our understanding of them is also necessarily limited and imperfect. Indeed, we instinctively recognize this fact in daily practice: we routinely look beyond the words that we read or hear to try to understand what the other person is really trying to express. Communication involves far more than words or gestures or even actions. We sense that there is an inner meaning and purpose that underlies and informs the visible. We often experience this when we talk with friends or family and realize that something unspoken is on their mind: maybe they are troubled, happy, or just off somewhere in their own interior landscape of thought and feeling. Whatever the undertones may be, we know that the real meaning of the encounter is often not dealt with openly in word or act. Yet the hidden message is sometimes unmistakable; indeed, it can be the most important aspect of the experience.

So if words are inadequate for expressing absolute truth, how can any sacred book be an absolute authority to base our lives upon? The simple answer is, it can't. That is not to say that such books have no value; they are often resplendent with timeless wisdom. They represent attempts to express universal principles in a way that stimulates our intuition, that quickens our sense of a deeper, truer meaning that lies beneath the symbols and metaphors of the text. As in our conversations with each other, the real meaning lies not in the words but in the experience.

Each of us is an essential and integral part of the human family. In the aggregate, how we see ourselves and our relationships and responsibilities to each other determines the course of human affairs on a global scale. Harshly narrow and rigid views do much more than merely circumscribe our understanding. Endless conflict and suffering has resulted from fastening on the literal expression of authority. Using externally imposed doctrines of religion to silence opposing views has exacted a terrible toll in death and moral disaster worldwide. Unfortunately, this suffering will continue until people realize that everyone is a divine being, that we all share the basic dignity of a spiritual core as pure and inviolate as the greatest god we can imagine. Therein lies the key to living our ideals. We all have deep-seated and generally valid values. We all instinctively know right from wrong, for ourselves. But we also need to recognize the same right in others. If we believe that our right is the only right, or the best for everyone, then we inflate our own self-importance and view all others as inferior to us. On the other hand, if we blindly follow a course directed by someone else be they priest, guru, or even trusted friend then we see ourselves as inferior. Neither view recognizes that we are all equal before each other's inner god.

So, if we cannot place ourselves above each other, how do we live every day in accordance with our own highest ideals? Since other people see things differently than we do, disagreements and conflicts are inevitable. If their right to their own conscience is as great as our own, how do we proceed? Paradoxically, the way to respect everyone's intrinsic worth is to compromise. This is not to say that we simply surrender our will to another in order to avoid conflict, although it may sometimes seem so on the surface. Rather, we must seek to really understand what the other person is saying and thinking. We must try to find the underlying meaning of their words so that we can understand what is truly important to the situation. Sometimes we will see that, while the actual words chosen may seem strange or inadequate, the underlying message is substantially consistent with our own beliefs. We can then proceed to a common understanding that respects the inner dignity and integrity of each individual.

Admittedly, this is not always an easy path to discover in the often heated emotions of the moment. But it is a process that is consistent with our spiritual nature, and it is what we will usually do anyway with those who are close to us personally. So why not treat everyone as if they were members of our own family, the human family? Why not use the art of compromise to try to get beyond the conflicts and heartaches born of a limited view of human nature? True, it takes more time and effort to reach out to the heart of another. But when we find the way of the understanding heart, we find the way of the gods.

(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 2006; copyright © 2006 Theosophical University Press)

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